Yakuza 6: The Song of Life Review
Poor Kazuma Kiryu just can’t catch a break. Over the course of the Yakuza game series, he’s been shot, beaten, thrown in jail, and just generally treated like crap by life. Well, it seems times haven’t changed for the Dragon of Dojima. In Yakuza 6: The Song of Life, the latest instalment of the SEGA series, Kiryu is once again the universe’s punching bag – but don’t worry, he gives as good as he gets, just like always.
Yes, Yakuza 6 mostly sticks with the tried and true formula, giving us another Japanese gangster opera about one lone man’s dogged quest for justice. Kiryu (on his own this time as protagonist) is once again pulled back into the underworld he’d forsaken, for (another) one last mission: this time to save his adopted daughter Haruka after she is left in a coma by a mysterious hit-and-run driver. And again, he has to roundhouse-kick his way to the top of Kamurocho’s underworld hierarchy to get to the truth, all while taking care of Haruka’s newborn baby.
Veterans of the Yakuza series will be right at home in Yakuza 6. After a rather long, cut-scene-heavy intro, we’re back in Kamurocho, the fictional red-light district that has been the setting for the series many times before (although Hiroshima comes in as another location later). The layout of the district’s streets, and its shops, is the same – Theatre Square, Club SEGA arcades, Don Quijote and lots of other beloved locations are all there just like you remember. You’ll be able to start running around, being accosted by street thugs, eating food at restaurants, and generally exploring the entire area just like you never left.
“Veterans of the Yakuza series will be right at home in Yakuza 6.”
Yakuza 6 gives us the usual serious main storyline, which is once again an epic tale of clan politics, personal betrayals and “shocking” twists, but Kiryu’s softer side is also explored as he struggles to take care of Haruka’s baby. You’ll engage in semi-comical sequences in which tough-guy Kiryu must buy milk for the baby and soothe him when he cries, all while engaged in his very adult quest for vengeance. Using my Dualshock 4 as a motion controller to rock or bounce little Haruto during these sequences almost had me laughing out loud, imagining how silly I looked.
There’s also the plethora of light hearted and quirky side-quests we’ve come to expect – there’s 51 substories in all this time around – which offer comedy relief and even sometimes biting satire on modern phenomena like social media, pop culture and artificial intelligence. One of the more bizarre ones even has you running a Cat Café. The substories are once again a strong aspect of the narrative, and the obvious love that the game’s writers put into these little stories continues to make them a crucial part of the Yakuza experience. If there is a downside, it’s that there are fewer of them than we have seen before – Kiwami, for example, had 78, and Yakuza 0 had 100.
Combat, though, is a bit different from recent Yakuza games, especially if your first experience was Yakuza 0. This time around there is just one fighting style open to Kiryu, and it starts off feeling sluggish and limited. But that changes pretty quickly, as you use EXP gained from fighting to enhance your stats across a wide range of categories – attack, defense, stamina and more. Or – an aspect I really liked – you can choose to use your EXP to unlock new moves, combos and skills instead. The EXP and upgrading system in Yakuza 6 allows you to really micromanage how you want Kiryu to evolve over your playtime.
There are also new additions like Ultimate Heat Mode, which allows for super attacks if you build up your heat enough. Despite the more simple appearance, combat in Yakuza 6 is among the best I’ve experienced so far. Some might miss the multiple fighting styles, but to be honest, I’ve found with previous Yakuza games that I tended to heavily favour one style anyway.
Visually, Yakuza 6: The Song of Life has a brand-new engine to take full advantage of the PS4’s horsepower, and I would say it shows. Although not a night-and-day difference from recent titles in the series, there is definitely a higher level of polish in Kamurocho’s environments and in character models. This is especially noticeable in close ups, where skin pores and clothing materials exhibit much more detail than I’ve seen before. In a series that has always looked good, Yakuza 6 is the prettiest title yet.
Yakuza’s cut-scenes have always been strong, but Yakuza 6 somehow has an even greater level of cinematic polish that actually makes them enjoyable to sit through. And the new engine also allows for other improvements – environments are destructible, so you can smash up store windows, and fights can even spill into the store itself – much to the store owners’ fury. All dialogue is acted out now as well, so those endless text sequences are thankfully a thing of the past.
In gameplay, Yakuza 6’s new engine brings other nice new tweaks. There is now a smooth transition when engaging in combat, so say goodbye to those set-up sequences every time you run into a gang of thugs on the street. Now, potential combat foes are indicated among crowds by red symbols over their heads. If you choose to get close to them, the combat will start right away. You can also walk into shops and restaurants without loading – walking up to a worker and pressing X initiates the interaction. These refinements were long-needed, and as a whole you’ll find that Yakuza 6 streamlines gameplay in a very welcome way.
Finally, how can we forget all those extra activities open to you around Kamurocho? Yakuza 6 offers a huge selection of side-activities like darts, baseball, working out, karaoke and tons of other time-wasters that will add hours to your experience. As with the substories, it feels like there are fewer diversions than before, maybe as a consequence of the new beefier game engine. But we do get an entire extra game mode – a mini-game called Clan Creator – which I didn’t get a chance to really explore, but looks deep and interesting.
“This may be the Dragon of Dojima’s last kick at the franchise, but he leaves on a high note that will satisfy the yakuza in all of us.”
The biggest criticism one might level at Yakuza 6 is that, despite the various tweaks and additions, it is another helping of a game we’ve played many times before – hell, even Kiryu’s “single-dad” routine isn’t that far off from his role as Haruka’s protector in the first Yakuza. But if you’re like me, that familiarity isn’t a bad thing. Yakuza 6, like each Yakuza game before it, feels like returning to your favourite vacation spot; sure, you know everything it has to offer, but it’s still a great time anyway. But another gripe for me was that I did miss some of my favourite characters of past games, who are conspicuously absent – Majima, especially after his star turn in Yakuza 0, was especially missed.
For the most part, though, Yakuza 6: The Song of Life gives fans of the series what they want, plus a new level of polish and smoother gameplay. And if you’re new to the series, this is one of the better titles to start with, and you’ll catch on to what you’re supposed to do pretty quickly. Yakuza 6’s sole focus on Kiryu, fewer extras, and its lack of new locations might make it feel smaller in scope, but what it does bring is once again thoroughly enjoyable. This may be the Dragon of Dojima’s last kick at the franchise, but he leaves on a high note that will satisfy the yakuza in all of us.
** A PS4 game code was provided by the publisher **
- Improved visuals
- Load screen-free
- Fully voiced dialogue
- Lack of combat variety
- Smaller scope
- Some beloved characters absent